ART OF THE DIVE / PORTRAITS OF THE DEEP
by David J. Wagner, featuring artworks, biographies and statements by Charles Allmond, Al Barnes, Renée Bemis, Eric Berg, M.J. Brush, Ian Coleman, Jean-Louis Courteau, Guy Harvey, John Kobald, Stanley Meltzoff (1917-2006), Diane Peebles, Randy Puckett, Don Ray, George Schelling, Randall Scott, Rachelle Siegrist, Wes Siegrist, Mark Susinno, Fred Thomas, Kent Ullberg, Ronnie Williford, Wyland, with design & layout by Wes Siegrist, is available in hard cover, from Lulu Publishing at:
The following excerpt about Stanley Meltzoff (1917-2006), is taken from Wagner's comprehensive reference book, American Wildlife Art:
ART OF THE DIVE
Excepted from American Wildlife Art
2008 © David J. Wagner
An important development in American art history emerged a decade after mid-twentieth century: the painting of fish observed by divers capable of taking photographs underwater. Credit for this development belongs to Stanley Meltzoff (1917-2006). Meltzoff was born in Harlem the son of a cantor at a synagogue in Manhattan. Like his contemporary, Roger Tory Peterson (1908-1996) (who is best known as the father of the field guide), Meltzoff attended the Art Students League. After Meltzoff graduated from City College in 1937 and earned a Masters of Fine Arts degree from New York University, he taught art and art history at City College for two years, and then served as a World War II artist-journalist and art editor with Stars and Stripes magazine from 1941 to 1945 in Africa and Italy.[i] After the war, Meltzoff painted magazine ads and returned to teach City College of New York. From 1950 to 1955, he taught at Pratt Institute, but he gradually abandoned teaching to paint full time.
For a while, Meltzoff made a living illustrating feature articles in Life and Saturday Evening Post, as well as National Geographic and other main stream American magazines. By the early the 1960's, he was mostly painting history and genre scenes to illustrate magazines like Life.[ii] In his spare time, Meltzoff pursued his other passion, diving. As noted years later in his obituary in the New York Times, “. . . even as a child in the 1920s, Mr. Meltzoff had been an avid skin diver, mainly off the New Jersey coast. By the 1940s, he was keen on spear fishing and scuba diving and, starting in 1949, he added underwater photography.”[iii] As magazine assignments waned from competition from photography, necessity became the mother of invention, which led, not surprisingly given his passion for diving, to a career in wildlife art, but not just any kind of wildlife art, as Meltzoff explained in this excerpt from an article he wrote years later for Illustration magazine:
My wife was ill, my children needed college money, and I was almost 60 years old. I stood on the corner of 56th St. and Lexington Avenue [New York City] in the rain with a soggy portfolio in my hands and improvised a sad little song about defeat, flat feet and [being] flat broke while I tried to think of something to do. A picture maker for reproduction, such as an illustrator, depends on the media available. What would Norman Rockwell have accomplished without four-color printing in pass periodicals? The media for which I had learned to work had dissolved and I had to refashion my skills.
The diving season in early spring was approaching and I was happier to think about fish underwater. For my own studio walls I once made a picture of striped bass [in 1960] at the tip of Manasquan inlet where I had speared a 65 lb. bass. I thought I might go to Field & Stream and offer to do a series of pictures of striped bass underwater. No on had ever done such a thing before and the editor laughed me out of the office. I went to Sports Illustrated where the new art editor, Dick Gangel, had known me when he had been a junior at Life. Gangel was the wisest art director I ever met. He told me to make as many pictures of striped bass as I desired, rough or finished. Form the portfolio he would choose what he wished to print. No matter how many or how few he used I would get a flat fee for the series. Having dived with striped bass for 25 years from Hatteras to Cape Cod and from April to December, I decided to illustrated their 12 month cycle.[iv]
Meltzoff began this new episode in his career, and in the history of American wildlife art, by painting striped bass around 1964 which Sports Illustrated published in 1966. “His advantage with stripers was being an avid spear fisherman. He knew striper physiology and behavior from countless hours spent floating in the water with his prey, trying to think like a Striper.”[v] Meltzoff’s method was to take photos underwater to project onto board, and then draw and paint in his studio.
It was for stripers that I taught myself scuba since there was then no one else to teach me. I made crude underwater camera cases to follow and photograph them. Striped bass had lured me under the water from my first dive with mask and spear, now sixty years ago. They taught me how to locate fish in clouds of silt. I improvised my first wet suit out of sheet rubber to hunt them in cold water. Striped bass showed me how to become a fishpainter by selling their underwater pictures to magazines rather than illustrating the words of others. Seeing and rendering stripers was not a problem, since I had searched them out in every season and in all their haunts from Cape Cod to Hatteras. I chose to do striped bass at different hours of the day in each month in each season, at the sites of their migration up and down the Atlantic coast, following the herring and silversides in spring, the shedder crabs and fluke in summer and the bunker and squid in autumn. I pictured them spawning in spring, fattening all summer and hibernating late in winter. I avoided the surprising moment of their death when the fish was transfigured into a trophy.[vi]
Meltzoff would play around with the composition and design in pencil, often embellishing and combining his photographs, and then painting in the finished drawing last. Meltzoff achieved an exceptional degree of anatomical and ecology accuracy through this method, which he pushed through creative license for unusual perspective and drama. He went on to paint some 26 striped bass in the 1960’s.
Beginning in 1968, he produced 13 paintings of tarpon. In 1971, he turned to bonefish and produced a series of 11 paintings for SI which was published in 1972. Meltzoff knew the Bahamian flats very well, with its bonefish, permit, sharks, and rays, and went to the Bahamas at least a dozen times, often to Stella Maris. After a series of blue fish in the mid-70’s, Meltzoff set his sights on bill fish, traveling around the world to photograph and paint blue marlin, white marlin, striped marlin, black marlin, sailfish, and swordfish.[vii]
My fish were popular with both the readers and editors of Sports Illustrated. I covered sailfish tournaments in Palm Beach and blue marlin fishing in St. Thomas. The late, incomparable Steve Sloan, an International Game Fish Association trustee, showed me how to get on with big game fishermen and where to find billfish. I was getting my expenses paid to dive in exotic waters in order to make pictures of what I saw and the originals were mine to keep. To my surprise, Tom Lenk of Garcia Corporation bought the entire set of striped bass and all the later sets for use as corporate displays. These originals sold for more than the magazine fees for reproduction. Ten years later, the Garcia Corp. went bankrupt. All of the hundred or so fish paintings of mine in their possession were put up for sale in Chancery court in Boston. I bid ten cents on the dollar of their original price and, suddenly, I had that indispensable necessity for a self-employed picture maker, an inventory. Fred King at Sportsman’s Edge, then the only gallery in the country to specialize in hunting, fishing, sailing and golf, was persuaded to show pictures of fish underwater and sold many at the opening. I began to believe that I could pick my own subjects and paint them in my own time. I no longer had to wait hungrily for the next free-lance assignment. I slowly stopped killing fish, which were now more valuable to me alive than cooked.[viii]
The only bill fish he never photographed or saw diving was the elusive spear fish. During these years, Meltzoff also dove in Nova Scotia and the Straits of Florida to observe and paint blue fin tuna. Through a family connection in Canada, he spent time swimming among tuna inside farms off Prince Edward Island. In Florida, as well as the Virgin Island and Belize, he also painted jewfish, turtles, dolphin and sharks.
The tradition that Meltzoff began in 1960 was taken up by a younger generation of enthusiastic and talented artists during the last quarter of the twentieth century, as he noted in his manuscript: “I had become a fishpainter, at first the only fishpainter, but others soon followed and now there are more than thirty flapping in the school.”[ix] Perhaps the greatest evidence of his influence has been the Annual Exhibitions of the Society of Animal Artists (which he actively served as a member of its Board of Directors and a member of its Membership and Exhibition Juries in the new Millennium before his death), and which perennially displayed art of the dive by the next generation of wildlife artists after it was introduced by Meltzoff .
[i] Stanley Meltzoff, “Stanley Meltzoff, Metamorphoses of a Picture Maker,” Illustration, no. 4 (August, 2002), p. 39.
[ii] Email message from Diane Pogrant (Mrs. Stanley Meltzoff), May 12, 2007.
[iii] Dennis Hevesi, "Stanley Meltzoff, 89, Avid Diver Who Painted Marine Life," New York Times, November 15, 2006.
[iv] Meltzoff, "Metamorphoses of a Picture Make," p. 33.
[v] Email message from Diane Pogrant (Mrs. Stanley Meltzoff), May 12, 2007.
[vi] Stanley Meltzoff, Illusions of a Fish Painter (unpublished manuscript).
[viii] Meltzoff, Illusions of a Fish Painter.
Mike Rivken and Stanley Meltzoff, with Foreword by Sir Ernst Gombrich, Stanley Meltzoff – Picture Maker. La Jolla, CA: Silverfish Press, 2010.
NOTE: The unpublished manuscript referred to in Wagner's 2008 book, American Wildlife Art, appears in its entirety in Rivkin's 2010 book, Stanley Meltzoff – Picture Maker.